Tanya Hernandez, Director, Government & Industry Relations, has more than 25 years of experience in the lighting industry. Needless to say, she has a wealth of knowledge to share. We sat down with Tanya to discuss leadership, the challenges she has faced in her career, and why diversity of thought and experience is critical to leadership.
How did you decide to work in Engineering and/or the Lighting Industry?
I’ve always been strong in math and science, and growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was told that I could be anything I wanted. At the time, I thought it would take too long to become a medical doctor or a lawyer, so I chose engineering. I believed and still believe it is an excellent path to financial freedom and challenging and rewarding work. Landing in lighting was completely by chance. I thought I would be an executive working at IBM after spending five summers in a program called INROADS. When the IBM Charlotte location closed in the early 90s, that opportunity evaporated as I was finishing up my senior year at NC State. I graduated without a job and through a close contact, I met a man who owned a small electrical design firm and started working for him. I did electrical calculations and lighting layouts while learning about various light sources. It was a very small firm and I was making less money there than I was during my internships with IBM. After a year, I applied for a position at UL, and I still believe the reason they hired me is because I knew the difference between a metal halide and mercury vapor lamp. Before coming to Acuity Brands, I’ve worked in diverse areas of lighting, including leading an engineering team, certifying countless lighting products, and authoring safety specifications for LED luminaires at UL. I also lead ICF International’s technical team on specification development for the EPA ENERGY STAR Lighting Program. I have had the privilege to work as an electrical engineer and lighting designer for architectural and public art lighting design projects specializing in LEDs and lighting control technologies, and even owned a design firm in Durham, NC.
What is the greatest challenge that you’ve conquered?
I faced many challenges in my career, but one challenge that stands out is hearing the word no. I used to think when someone said no, that was the end of the story. I used to internalize noes and attribute them to my shortcomings. I’ve come to understand that when people say no, there may be a variety of reasons why, and most of the time, it has nothing to do with me, my ideas or abilities. This realization has given me the freedom to keep trying and to pursue avenues I once thought closed to me.
What is your advice for other women?
I have lots of advice for women, so I try to mentor and encourage as many as I can. As a young engineer, I always thought I had to know everything or be one of the smartest people in the room in order to be taken seriously or even speak up in a meeting. I now tell women to speak up and be bold, even if you don’t have all the facts. Sometimes action now is better than a more informed decision later. This advice doesn’t mean you can be reckless; it is permission to do what men do every day, like volunteer for assignments in areas they lack experience.
Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Why and how did this person impact your life?
I’m not sure how appropriate this answer is, but Cheryl English. I met Cheryl over 15 years ago when I visited Acuity Brands to audit its safety testing laboratory. I was working at UL at the time and she took time to have lunch with me. She was already a VP at Acuity Brands. When I would see her at industry events, like Lightfair and the IES Annual Conference, I would make sure to connect with her. There are still so few women with technical backgrounds in lighting at the VP level or higher. I’ve watched her navigate complex industry issues with mastery. She is a great example of leadership up close and personal.
What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
Emotional intelligence. Recognizing the needs of a business and the needs of the people is paramount in being a successful leader. No decision should be made in a vacuum, so a leader should understand the needs, abilities, and motivation of an organization’s most valuable resource—its people.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing female leaders today?
Women need opportunities to lead. I believe women leaders are just as good as men, and sometimes we are even better at leading. In my experience, we have not been afforded the same opportunities for leadership, especially in the technical fields.
What is one mistake you witness female leaders making more frequently than others?
Believing that if we are leaders, we need to act like men. Authenticity is liberating. We can be thoughtful and still be taken seriously. We can dress feminine and still command a room.
What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
Be bold in your decision making, and don’t change who you are. If you are a wife and/or mother, you can still lead effectively. In fact, managing a home gives you great experience in conflict resolution, communication, and accountability. And you will make mistakes, so try to recover from them quickly.
Why is it important to have male allies on your leadership journey?
If you only had women allies, your perspective would be skewed. Diversity of thought and experience is critical to leadership. As engineers or working in technical roles, we tend to have men in our tribe naturally.